Triumph of tradition

THERE is something defiant about a restaurant that, in our pestered, politically-correct times, is called a chop house.

That this one was so named just two years ago is almost a political statement, one brought to life by the ingredients used and, in this instance, how they are used.

That the guests eat in a warren of snug, almost secret rooms tucked away behind a wonderfully preserved Victorian bar adds to the sense that the house’s values celebrate tradition rather than fashion. Or, as a sceptic might poke, it just may be that in the cycle of these things, in the great flux of our times, there is a market for comfort food.

Since O’Brien Chop House was opened by Justin and Jenny Green of Ballyvolane House in July 2009 it has won a reputation that has taken others decades to secure. This reputation is based on doing simple, traditional things very well, all the while reminding us why we love really good fish pies, a good, juicy chump chop or a rice pudding as comforting as an old duvet.

On a very busy Friday night DW and I had a table beside the kitchen and though some might find this an intrusion it highlighted the sheer hard work that goes into good food.

DW began with seared scallops and black pudding amplified by nero cream. The scallops were excellent, sweet, sharp and oh so tender, so much so that it would not have been heartbreaking if the dish came without the black pudding and a scallop or two more.

I opened with devilled lambs’ kidneys on toast, a simple dish that can go wrong in so many ways but not here. Tender little chestnuts of musky taste set off by a chilli-tinged liquid too light to call a sauce. It was so well done that it was hard not to feel sorry for all of those otherwise rational people who have decided that offal is not for them.

Helena Hickey’s Skeaghanore duck from west Cork has won a place in a lot of restaurant kitchens and DW was beguiled by the Chop House’s iteration — duck breast with cherries, yellow beetroot and summer greens. A single breast served on a sugary background that almost perfectly set off the sweetness in the crisped layer of fat that comes with any decent duck. Top class.

My main course could hardly have been simpler. A substantial pork chop with apple, onion and thyme sauce. Of all the meats desecrated by industrial farming, pork suffers most. This piece — a saddleback chop — was as far removed from the candy-pink slices of nothingness we see in so many shops today as a Crufts pooch is from a working dog. It was worth cooking and most certainly worth eating.

Before leaving the centre-piece dishes — there were 10 on the menu and a few more specials — it would be wrong not to point to two. Steak tartare and a rib of beef on the bone for two (€53.75), one more enticing than the other. There were non-meat options too.

Desserts — lemon tart with pistachio ice cream and rice pudding with a poached pear — were top class.

The wine, a Château Montlisse St Émilion Grand Cru 1998, was excellent and excellent value too. We were charged €32.00 even though many houses put this bottle in the €50 to €60 bracket.

This good value was reflected elsewhere — a weekday Two for Twenty or Three for Twentyfive, add about €5 for Sunday roasts. On the main menu only beef and lobster dishes broke the €20 barrier. These are really competitive prices.

At a time when celebrating bourgeois — in the best sense of the word — values in food can get you pigeon holed with the Freikorps reactionaries who paved the way to power for Hitler, it is not always easy to promote the unglitzy, but the Greens and their staff have shown that substance endures while nearly everything else is transient. They make their mission statement — traditional robust Irish food, sourced locally, served simply — come alive in a wonderful way.

A simple but deceptively difficult path to excellence.

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